Talent Management • 3 min reading

5 Steps to Manage Difficult Conversations at Work

A colleague makes an inappropriate comment. An employee confesses a serious mistake or you notice them making one. The performance one of your team members is declining. These are all situations where you have no choice but to address the problem. Engaging in difficult conversations at work that can lead to conflict is far from easy. That said, showing leadership and building a relationship of trust around negative behaviour is possible!

The following steps will help you turn these difficult situations into a learning opportunity.

1. Prepare

The first thing you absolutely shouldn’t do is start such a conversation when you’re feeling emotional. Your first instinct might be to respond quickly, but in these cases, taking a step back from the situation can prevent communication mishaps and will allow you to remain in control of the situation once your discussion begins.

Start by preparing an opening sentence in which you clearly and concisely explain what the problem is. Use concrete examples and, if possible, numerical data that illustrates the problem you want to solve or the behaviour you want to change.

While being factual is important, don’t completely disregard the emotional side of the exchange. Explain how the situation affects you or your colleagues. Are you worried? Is your team less motivated and more anxious? Are your customers feeling nervous? Sometimes people behave in a certain way simply because they don’t see how their behaviour affects those around them. An outside perspective on their behaviour can become an additional source of motivation for change.

Finally, plan your meeting. No one likes to be confronted by surprise. By choosing a specific date and time, you reduce the uncertainty surrounding an already delicate situation and reduce the chances that the person feels defensive.

When you invite this person to meet with you, stress that you want to have a constructive dialogue and are not looking for punishment or to lecture them. Before they even sit down with you, your colleague should feel that they will be listened to and that they will have a chance to be heard.

2. Listen

Once you’ve presented the situation and expressed your point of view, give the person you meet the opportunity to speak freely. Some will find it easy to express their point of view quickly. Others may take refuge in silence. In either case, ask open-ended questions and pay attention to the answers.

Don’t listen just to respond. Listen to gain understanding.

Be curious and keep an open mind. Your goal is to encourage discussion. Even if you don’t agree with what’s being said, don’t react negatively. Let the other person speak to avoid them harbouring feelings of frustration that will hinder the productivity of your discussions.

3. Recognize

The third step is the ideal opportunity for all managers to practice their empathy. Recognize and validate the views and feelings expressed by the other person. This doesn’t mean that their behaviour is excused or that you condone the way they act and think.

To validate what another person is saying, rephrase what they’ve said and make sure you’re interpreting their words correctly. Your goal is to understand how the situation was perceived differently and what their motives are for specific behaviours. This step will allow you to both decrease possible hostility from the person you meet while gaining an idea of how you might resolve the problem.

4. Express yourself

You’ve introduced the situation. In turn, your colleague has had the chance to express their point of view, which you’ve recognized. Now is your turn to speak. Your main objective is to clarify the situation. Be confident and present the nature of the problem with sensitivity and precision.

Remember that inappropriate remarks or comments or counterproductive behaviour hurt the whole team. As a manager, it’s your duty to protect your colleagues. So don’t minimize the consequences of problematic behaviours.

Now that you have the perspective of the other person, you can incorporate it into your description of the situation. This will allow you to draw a more accurate and concrete portrait of the problem while proving that you’ve listened to the arguments presented.

5. Resolve

Every difficult conversation must end with a solution. Together, build a long-term action plan that will ensure that the problem doesn’t happen again. Deciding together on the concrete actions to be taken will increase the chances that your colleague will implement them quickly and effectively.

If the issue was performance-related, choose a date when you can assess how the situation is evolving.

Finally, thank the person for their time and openness and invite them to contact you if they’re having difficulty resolving the situation as agreed. Your goal is to show that you’re not there to punish them, but rather to help them improve.

Once your conversation is over you can also congratulate yourself. Difficult discussions are far from pleasant. On the other hand, they’re a golden opportunity to practice the key skills necessary to being a good manager: planning, active listening, empathy and problem solving. Each complex conversation, as unpleasant as it is, allows you to improve and approach the next one with more composure and ease.





Subscribe to radar

Subscribe to radar for occasional updates on upcoming events, major announcements, and exclusive opportunities, ensuring you're always in the loop with our latest happenings!